City council gives OK to private pot shops in Ottawa


City councillors approved a staff recommendation Thursday to allow pot storefronts in Ottawa, despite a number of complaints about the lack of local zoning powers in the province’s private cannabis retail scheme.

Council’s decision against opting out during Thursday morning’s special session on cannabis retail will allow companies to open up pot shops in the capital come April 1 – the date the Ontario government has designated as the start of storefront sales.

Last week’s staff report, which recommended the approval of cannabis retail in the capital, projected market demand for between 34 and 69 cannabis shops in Ottawa. That report included results from a recent online survey, in which three quarters of respondents indicated support for local pot shops.

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Numerous councillors took issue with a lack of zoning bylaw control over where cannabis storefronts will be placed. Applications to open a pot shop anywhere in the province are to be reviewed by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, with municipalities given the chance to submit letters of approval or concern in a 15-day window.

Municipalities have been given the chance to opt in or out of having private cannabis storefronts in their areas, but once a city opts in, it can’t reverse the decision. Mississauga and Markham both opted out of having pot shops in their cities earlier this week.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury called Ontario’s rollout of private cannabis a “provincial trap,” echoing the concerns of many of his fellow councillors. Others at the table brought forward concerns about the province’s 150-metre buffer zone between pot shops and schools.

Mayor Jim Watson stated his preference for the former Liberal government’s scheme to sell cannabis out of the LCBO, but added that opting out was not a “realistic option” for Ottawa, especially with Gatineau hosting pot shops across the river.

Though the final approval decision was passed unanimously, Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Carol Anne Meehan teamed up with College Coun. Rick Chiarelli to put forward a motion earlier in the meeting to opt out of cannabis retail in Ottawa – “for now.”

While she made it clear she didn’t oppose local pot retail in theory, Meehan said she was unconvinced by the staff report’s recommendations and wanted further information on the anticipated impact of legal cannabis on Ottawa residents and the black market. She argued for joining Mississauga and Markham and pushing the Conservative government to change its framework on private cannabis retail.

“I’m asking you today to make the tough decisions. Opt out for now, press for a better deal,” she said. But Meehan and Chiarelli could not convince any of their fellow councillors to join their cause.

Ottawa lawyer Trina Fraser told OBJ in October that while the province’s decision to put local storefront decisions in the hands of the AGCO was “unusual,” the decision to opt out would have reflected a “regressive, prohibitionist attitude.”

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